Imax sets its sight on Bollywood and India's audiences

Dhoom 2 image from Yash Raj Films
Image caption Imax has partnered with Yash Raj Films to make a sequel to Bollywood blockbuster Dhoom 2

With 689 movie theatres in 52 countries, the large-screen cinema operator Imax has emerged as a truly global player in the world of films.

Well, almost.

The Canadian company has yet to conquer India, home to the world's second largest film industry after Hollywood.

And that, acknowledges Imax chief Rich Gelfond in an interview with BBC News, is not going to be easy.

More than a decade after first entering this vast country, there are still just four Imax theatres in India.

And even as the company guns for growth, their number is expected to barely hit double digits by the end of this year.

"India is still fairly embryonic," Mr Gelfond reluctantly admits.

"India is not China, and it's not going to grow as quickly as China."

Hard to change habits

The contrast between the two is enormous.

In China, there are more than 100 Imax theatres, up from just 13 in 2008, and another 150 or so new ones are planned for the next few years, Mr Gelfond says.

Image caption Mr Gelfond says it is difficult to compete in a country with as strong a cinema culture as India's

When compared with its success in China, Imax's failure to conquer a country of movie lovers such as India might come across as incompetent at best.

But Mr Gelfond insists it is not as easy as it might seem.

Establishing Imax in China was aided by the Chinese people's "enormous appetite for what I like to call 'affordable luxury'," Mr Gelfond says.

He agrees that $15 (£10) cinema tickets will be seen as an expensive treat for many in China, though he points out that it is not as costly as many other luxury goods.

"The main market in China can't afford Chanel bags," he observes, "so going to an Imax becomes a sort of status kind of purchase. The Imax brand is stronger in China than it is in the US."

The Chinese have also fallen in love with films made in Hollywood or elsewhere in the West, unlike the Indians whose relationship with the movies is different, Mr Gelfond reasons.

In India, Bollywood films that are often low-budget are shown all over the country, often in small, local cinemas where tickets cost $2-3.

This makes it much harder to sell an altogether different entertainment proposition that costs five times as much or more, he says.

"In China, we could build from the start," Mr Gelfond says. "It's harder to change people's habits."

Exports potential

Imax's latest India strategy is much more comprehensive than its previous ones.

At its core is a partnership with Bollywood production company Yash Raj Films Studios to shoot Dhoom 3 in the Imax format, in an effort to build on the success of blockbusters Dhoom and Dhoom 2.

Image caption The Chinese have flocked to Imax cinemas in huge numbers in recent years

"The Dhoom films have been the most successful Bollywood films in history," insists Mr Gelfond.

Investing in Indian-made films is crucial for anyone who wants to win over an Indian audience, even though many there are developing a taste for international movies.

India's fast-growing middle class is increasingly willing to pay a premium to see movies from Hollywood, Mr Gelfond reasons.

"There's been a fair bit of Western cinema building in India, with ticket prices in modern multiplexes often coming in at about $9," he says.

Hence, the jump to Imax is not as large as it used to be, he says.

Yash Raj and Imax are not planning to rely on the Indian audience alone, however.

Movies are becoming increasingly global, Mr Gelfond says, pointing to the international success of Life of Pi, which was shot in India with Indian actors.

In other words, Imax films made in India should work for audiences in China, Europe or the US too, not just in the domestic market, he explains.

This export potential of big budget Imax films should make expansion in the vast, but hugely competitive, Indian market economically viable, he believes.

As such, Imax's efforts to conquer India might just be the fillip needed for Bollywood to conquer the world.

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